Welcome to Activist Land!

Activist Land provides tools and a pragmatic forum for the progressive activist community. It aims to complement traditional political blogs by emphasizing how you can get involved in specific issues and how to integrate activism into your life in an effective and sustainable way. Therefore, in addition to calling for action on a particular issue, it encourages people to post "activism opportunity" posts that describe the nuts and bolts of how one would, or did, take action in a particular instance.

My main area of focus is media reform. I've been working with Save Boston's Progressive Talk to help bring progressive talk radio to Boston, and I've written interviews to publicize "The Real News", an independent international news network. My secondary area of focus is election integrity. I maintain a set of Voting Rights pages with an emphasis on an election integrity timeline. I've written pieces on these and other subjects for Daily Kos and my local newspaper. For more info, see my first post. Come and join the community!

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Boston Progressive Talk is On the Air!

Okay, I admit it. I'm still not very good at dealing with good news. Remember the Onion video of the Obama zombies who, after devoting months of work to their candidate, enduring countless ups and downs, couldn't face the fact that he had won the election? That could have been me on the screen. Heck, it could have been you. But let's just try for a second to suspend our disbelief: After two and a half years, a group of progressive activists allied with business and political leaders has succeeded in leasing a major Boston station, WWZN (1510 AM), with a solid 50 kW signal reaching comfortably into New Hampshire, to broadcast progressive talk from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. every weekday! In addition to local host Jeff Santos, who has been on the air since Election Day, the lineup will include nationally syndicated hosts Stephanie Miller, Ed Schultz, and Thom Hartmann. We'll also be online for streaming and podcasts at RevolutionBoston.com. This news has been a long time coming.


What? No progressive talk in Boston?
To someone who hasn't followed the story of progressive talk radio closely, the surprise might be that Boston, one of the most liberal areas in the country, should face such a struggle to put progressive talk on the radio dial. But then we liberals are used to such offenses to our common sense. For how many years did Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, and another dozen conservative tub-thumpers have no one on the other side of the political divide to contend with on either radio or television?

In the 1930s, radio licenses were considered a contract between the public, who had a right to good information, and the radio stations that jockeyed to make use of the limited broadcast band that was ostensibly the public's property. However, the 1996 Telecommunications Act (sponsored and signed by Democrats as well as Republicans, alas) severely weakened decades-old ownership limits. Suddenly, single corporations, most notably the conservative-owned Clear Channel, could buy up large numbers of stations across the country. This consolidation in corporate ownership went hand-in-glove with a consolidation of political content when Rush Limbaugh and his cronies were basically allowed to take over the airwaves. Liberal talk shows wer forced off the air. (The erosion of the Fairness Doctrine was another part of the picture, but that's another story.)

Air America shakes things up
In 2004, Air America came along, finally giving stations enough material once again to devote themselves entirely to progressive talk. Often, stations would augment the AAR lineup with local programs, or shows from other networks, such as the Jones Network, now known as Dial Global. Progressive talk often brought dramatic increases in listenership on these stations, and the stations that had decent signals and staff became a self-evident success. However, where the stations had weak signals (not to mention a near total lack of staff or promotion), those who wanted to dismiss progressive talk could point to the stations' small absolute audience share rather than how well they did, given the measly wattage, at attracting loyal listeners. Critics could also use AAR's far-too-colorful management problems to tarnish progressive talk as a whole.

Even from the beginning of that 2004 wave, some progressive talk stations were being switched to other formats. (See my Progressive radio timeline for a chronological view and Progressive radio stations for an overview.) However, a particularly noticeable wave of format switches occurred in December 2006. Some speculate that the Republican station/network owners were running scared after the recent Democratic electoral victories, and feared that voters may have been listening to the faint but feisty content after all. For whatever reason, substantial rumors began to circulate that stations around the country would lose progressive talk. Madison, which had had the most advance notice, successfully rallied to convince Clear Channel to preserve the format. Columbus and Boston were not so lucky. Progressive talk was pulled off the air in Columbus one day prior to the rally that local activists had scheduled. Meanwhile, almost all progressive talk fans in Boston were caught by surprise when the station suddenly began broadcasting Latino music.

Organizing in the dead of night
One of the few who was not surprised was Robin Bergman (known as roborig at Blue Mass Group and rougegorge on Daily Kos), a local fan who had followed the forum on the station's website. In the wee hours just before progressive talk was to be stripped, she set up a message board and pointed people to it from the station site. By the end of the day, 50 people had signed up and were busy discussing what to do next. Within a few days, they had settled on a time and place for a meeting. In retrospect, if any of these -- the establishment of the message board, the placement of the notice on the site before the switch, or the scheduling of a meeting in the physical world -- had never occurred, or happened too late, crucial momentum could have easily been lost. But within a few days, the despondent diaries on Daily Kos or Blue Mass Group that wondered where Boston Progressive Talk had gone were receiving comments that told them where they could go to figure out what to do next.

Madison's success story had made a big impression on us, and our initial efforts focused on trying to talk Clear Channel into putting us back. At one early meeting, we wrote letters to the station management, pointing out that their ratings had improved as a result of progressive talk and predicting that they'd never recover (which turned out to be the case). But it became clear that they could not be moved.

Hey, big spender!
At this point, we began to think seriously about what we could do to get progressive talk onto another station. We determined that no station would switch to progressive talk as the result of our persuasion alone. We would have to raise some capital. Ideally, we'd buy our own station so that it couldn't be snatched out from under us on a whim even if we had pulled in listeners and advertising dollars. But that would require money. In the post-1996 Boston radio market, we'd need literally millions of dollars. Cursory arithmetic indicated that we could not rely on our own funds as ordinary citizens to raise the capital. (Let's see, one million dollars divided by one thousand supporters means -- a thousand dollars per supporter?!) So we'd need to find deeper pockets, whether they belonged to private wealthy individuals, or corporations, or foundations. And most of this search could not be conducted on a message board.

We then began the tortuous (and torturous) process of conducting public events and private negotiations. Jeff Santos, the one former local host on the old station, took the lead on the private side, drawing upon his knowledge of the industry and our suggestions, leads, energy, and research. We rode the roller coaster of hope and frustration as the economy took a turn for the worse and potential investors withdrew. But we persisted for two years. Two years -- the amount of time between the point when the Democrats first took back Congress and the moment when Obama entered the White House.

Reaping the rewards
Eventually we saw our first reward as Jeff reported live on Election Day. I found it a kick to listen to him in south-central New Hampshire as I drove around to do my part in getting out the vote, knowing that swing voters could hear him, too. But the real moment of triumph arrived this week, when Jeff announced on his show that starting on May 4, he, Stephanie, Ed, and Thom would be on the air from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. every weeknight. Wahoo!

Join in the fun!
If you live anywhere near Boston, I hope you will attend our kickoff party at the Revolution Rock Bar. Details:

Thursday, May 7, 6-9 pm
Revolution Rock Bar
200 High St
Boston, MA 02110
(across from Rowes Wharf, just off Atlantic Ave. and the Greenway)
RSVP by using the contact form at RevolutionBoston.com.

There will be plenty of ways you can help us, from suggesting advertisers to spreading the word to potential listeners. If you have questions, please contact me at alanfordean AT-SIGN yahoo. We invite you to join our message board.

Is this all a dream? Only one way to find out! Listen to us, either at 1510 AM or online at RevolutionBoston.com.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Canvassing is All About Showing Up

I co-lead a local group of Obama supporters preparing to canvass in New Hampshire, the swing state closest to us. (For those unfamiliar with the term, "canvassing" means going door-to-door for a candidate, putting yourself in touch with voters and the canvass on your sneakers in contact with the sidewalk.) One member sent me this question:

How does one prepare for canvassing? My support for Obama is largely subjective based on his handling of various situations. I don't think that will help me to be an effective canvasser - suggestions?

I'd like to point her to a nice succinct "elevator pitch," and any links or suggestions would be welcome. But I also want to use this as an opening to hold forth on what canvassing is about, how to enjoy it, and why (to paraphrase Woody Allen) ninety percent of success in canvassing is just showing up.

Research shows that canvassing increases voter turnout more than any other form of voter contact (phone, mail). The effectiveness depends on many variables (whether the canvassers are partisan or non-partisan, whether they pitch voting as a civic duty or a way to affect a close race, whether the people being canvassed have already been approached, and so on), but in general it seems that a canvasser can persuade about one contact out of 15 who would have ordinarily stayed home to go to the polls. This effect alone means that if I and a hundred others had each canvassed twice in 2000 in New Hampshire, a state that went for Bush by a margin of 7211, we could have swung not only the state but the entire country for Gore.

In addition, canvassing is important for identification. It points the campaign to potential volunteers, and it allows known supporters and known opponents to be removed from the lists of homes to be visited, freeing later canvassers to focus on the undecided voters.

I canvassed in New Hampshire for Dean in 2003 and 2004 and Kerry in 2004, and in Massachusetts for Deval Patrick (for governor) in 2006 and Jamie Eldridge (for U.S. Congress) in 2007. All told, that comes to about 20 times that I've canvassed for one candidate or another. Or, to put it another way: I've canvassed for myself, with the candidate as a beneficiary. Canvassing is good for my body, mind, and soul. The fact that it's good for the candidate, and good for society, is a nice side effect. If I were a Buddhist, I would presumably be able to see the candidate, society, and myself as one. But enlightened self-interest does nicely.

We've grown used to e-mail blasts, robocalls, and astroturfing, all tools that clone a single voice so that it can appear to come from everywhere. Much like the corporate voices that regretfully tell us that assembly lines in foreign lands are the only way to do business these days, we can almost feel that it's just not feasible to restrict ourself to speaking to a single person at a time.

But that's what canvassing is about. It's inefficient. You spend most of your time walking from house to house. The process can be optimized (by the people who decide where to send you and by the way you traverse the route), but it cannot be mechanized. However, that is a good thing for your cause, because if canvassing could be mechanized, the process would have been bought long ago by the forces with the most money. It's also a good thing for you. (I'm assuming, by the way, that physical exercise is not a problem for you. If it is, a well-run office will have plenty of other ways for you to help, such as data entry or phone banks.) How often have you indulged yourself in a long walk, or a face-to-face conversation with strangers? It's a treat to be forced to "regress" to an old-fashioned mode of transportation and communication, to walk the streets and speak to humans face-to-face. It's particularly valuable to have an excuse to do this somewhere other than in your own neighborhood. When else would you have the opportunity?

By this point, if you've already decided that you will be canvassing, you may be growing impatient. "All right, already. I'm going. Just tell me how, so I can get it over with." But my point is that you want to learn how to do it in a sustainable way. You want to be able to look forward to canvassing with anticipation rather than resentment. And that means focusing on the positive, because there will be negatives, though less pronounced than you might think. We'll get to them soon enough.

In addition to the prospect of a walk through a new neighborhood and connecting with fascinating campaign workers and fellow volunteers, one positive that has always carried me through has been the surprisingly frequent expressions of gratitude that I've gotten from people whose doorbells I've rung. Some of them are on "my team," and are naturally glad to see someone putting themselves out for a candidate that they support as well. But some are politically uninformed, and are pleased to have someone bring information to their doorstep.

So what do you say to the person opening the door? Just about anything, as long as it contains "Hi, I'm a volunteer for Candidate X." The campaign will give you a script beforehand anyway, but will also tell you that you're free to deviate from it (and I generally do). They will often suggest that you ask the person what's important to him or her. Posing this question is not just a strategic move, but a service that you are doing on behalf of both the voters and the campaign: you're helping them hear each other. This is marketing at its best. However, it can come across as weaselly if you don't feel comfortable asking the question, or if the voter is skeptical. In that case, feel free to simply say briefly what you like most about the candidate. You're probably not going to have time to launch into anything comprehensive anyway, so the thing that stands out most in your mind is probably the best. In any case, the person behind the door will probably collapse your message into a mental note "Nice person - seems sincere - made the effort to show up - supports Obama - maybe I will, too." Hence the overwhelming importance of just showing up.

Many doorbells will go unanswered, either because no one's home (common) or because no one wants to admit to being home (more rare). But you can leave a brochure ("drop lit"), perhaps with a handwritten line, to show you've been there. Hopefully, that will register a positive note in the same part of the brain where the face-to-face encounter would be stored.

Of course, there will be plenty of people who do not see your bringing the good news to their doorstep as a service. They view their house as a sanctuary and resent any intrusion, no matter how fleeting. Or they may even support the other candidate. But they will generally register annoyance, not anger.

I've found that surprisingly rarely, about once in every two days of canvassing, I run into someone who is memorably nasty. Sometimes, though, there's a humorous aspect to the encounter, or the incident will provide me with some insight. I remember knocking on a door to tell someone I was a volunteer for Kerry, only to have him tell me "Well, I'm for Bush. Four more years! Four more years!" In this case, I was able to acquire both insight (hmmm, some voters really do think like football fans) and get a chuckle out of the encounter (at the other guy's expense, of course).

You may also find people who are disposed to vote for your candidate, but will complain to you about what s/he has done. They may feel shut out of the democratic process, and inclined to boycott the election or vote for another candidate. I will not be surprised if I meet some educated canvassers who are disappointed with Obama over his FISA vote, for instance. My response would probably be along these lines: "I'll pass that along. I'm disappointed, too, and that's why I also put time into efforts for improving our electoral system, not just backing a single candidate every four years. But I've also decided that in the big picture, I ultimately empower myself by supporting the best candidate. Obama would be a good president, and McCain would be a very bad one." But even if this does not convince them to vote as I would like, I feel like I've made a stride for my mental health as well as theirs. I've allowed them to make their voice heard. And I've asserted my free will. I'm saying that despite the imperfections of our political system, I am choosing the best I can do at this moment. I am making a positive choice, a commitment.

So this Saturday, I will be treating myself to a day on the streets of New Hampshire. What about you?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Links for "Uncounted" Folks

Just came back from a local showing of "Uncounted: The New Math of American Elections". I promised people in the audience the following links on election integrity:

dKosopedia: Voting Rights
dKosopedia: Election integrity timeline

Emergency Assistance for Secure Elections Bill (H.R. 5036) (sponsored by Rep. Rush Holt, D, NJ-12)
Amendment (H.R. 811) to the Help America Vote Act (also sponsored by Rep. Holt)

Brad Friedman, featured in the movie, publishes the Brad Blog, which focuses primarily on election integrity.

For people in Rep. Ed Markey's district (MA-7), the contact info for his aide on election issues, Patrick Lally, is as follows:
E-mail address: patrick.lally@mail.house.gov
(781) 396-2900 (Medford office)
(508) 875-2900 (Framingham office)

Jonathan Simon, the expert on discrepancies of votes vs. exit polls who was featured in the movie, is a co-founder of the Election Defense Alliance, which streams regularly at Election Defense Radio.

Speaking of radio, see:

dKosopedia: Progressive radio stations
dKosopedia: Progressive radio timeline

You can find information on streaming progressive talk at Liberal Talk Radio. One progressive talk show host who has emphasized election integrity issues is Thom Hartmann.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Beyond paralysis

Yesterday, I read an arousing Daily Kos diary, HOW TO BE A CLIMATE HERO (which had been crossposted from Truth and Progress, a very worthwhile action-oriented blog). The author, Audrey Schulman, described breaking through her fellow passengers' paralysis in order to bring help to a woman who was undergoing a seizure aboard a train. She found the scene strikingly evocative of her attempts to counter the inertia she has encountered regarding the issue of climate disruption.

Audrey alluded to the Bystander Effect, in which people's willingness to take action in the face of a crisis is eroded by the sight of others' inactivity. The most famous example is probably the case of Kitty Genovese, who was raped and murdered despite the presence of observers (though many were not fully aware of what was happening). Phil Ochs' chilling song "A Small Circle of Friends" was inspired by the episode.

I had a similar experience as a teenager when I was participating in a state music festival. A crowd of us happened to witness a woman running down the street pursued by a man. At one point, she turned to us and screamed "Could somebody do something?" Nothing seemed to happen. I turned half-heartedly to an apathetic teacher and asked him whether he thought something could be done, and was oddly relieved when he responded noncommittally. We all seemed happy to brush away the episode. I didn't think of it again until my friend Julia, who had been there, read aloud in class an essay she had written about it. Since then, it has occurred to me again and again. I've replayed it in my mind, sometimes in a speculative updated form (would things have been different if I'd had had a cell phone?). Perhaps it was in the back of my head when, as an adult, I intervened on behalf of a child being bullied in my neighborhood (description here).

A number of commenters, though they appreciated Audrey's point, pointed out that the analogy was simplistic. In the case of climate disruption, they pointed out, many people were effectively being paid to ignore the problem, which had not happened in the scene on the train. Audrey readily agreed, but felt that her basic analogy still held.

In fact, a compelling call to arms often simplifies the stimulus for action. For instance, the organizer Saul Alinsky, in his book Rules for Radicals, points to the way the framers of the Declaration of Independence alluded only to how the British government had mistreated the colonists, not to the help it had given them. Alinsky felt that this partial representation of the facts was justified because the rebels' overall goal of liberty for the greatest number of people could only be realized if they were able to goad the masses into action. In Alinsky's deliberately provocative view, only those interested in preserving the status quo will raise questions as to whether the ends justify the means. I'm not sure I agree, but his presentation certainly made me think, and that (in a nicely self-referential way) was undoubtedly what he was after.

Having said that, however, I want to bring up one complication that went unmentioned by Audrey and her commenters. I believe that when we decide whether to get involved in a cause, we perform a calculation (conscious or subconscious) that includes not only the importance of a problem, not only the total time we have available, but the difference we feel we can make and the fit between our skills and the problem we're attacking, and of course our personal contacts with the people involved.

For many of us, the path to personal involvement in politics often begins with work for a candidate. We hear about campaigns all the time and we know they need workers. In my case, it was Howard Dean's campaign that introduced me to politics, and reintroduced me to activism. But I soon became interested in election integrity as well. As I saw it, the only way I could truly defend the environment was to help bring in a pro-environmental president, and that, in turn, could only be done if we had trustworthy elections. I volunteered for Verified Voting, where among other tasks, I helped test the interface for the Election Incident Reporting System. This was a nice match between my software engineering skills and my interest. Unfortunately, the work ended with the 2004 election, where the reports collected via EIRS were mostly ignored. I tried to get involved with the effort to push Rush Holt's paper ballot bills, but became disillusioned when their opponents (on all parts of the political spectrum) managed to stall the legislation. Finally, in late 2006, when Boston's progressive talk was forced off the radio, I found myself involved with a group of people in my own community. It was much more compelling to contribute my time and skills to real "neighbors" whom I could meet in person, and it felt as though we could get somewhere with our attempt to have some effect on media to break the stranglehold that we'd seen from the 90s on. Now that that effort has entered a slower phase, I find myself once again circling around the activist world, looking for the right way to get involved. It's very much like a job search.

Throughout this process, I believe we need to rely on the postulate that we can be most helpful by finding the places where we are the best fit and relying on others to take on the causes that we individually, in our limited capacity, cannot. In that process, we will form connections with people and causes whom we feel especially drawn to, and given the right opportunity, we will join those causes. In the meantime, we will publicize the work they are doing. So while it may take me some time to find the best way to get involved in the fight to mitigate climate disruption (wouldn't it be great to dust off the science I abandoned so long ago?), I appreciate those who are already doing noble work in not allowing us to simply stand by. Thanks, Audrey!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Potato Chips, Prometheus, and the Blogosphere

[completed on December 30, 2007]

I give the blogosphere a great deal of credit for countering my isolation as a progressive in a conservative country, familiarizing me with political figures, prepping me for debate, introducing me to issues. It's hard to imagine another medium that could have gotten through to me with the message that indeed I could make a difference. Magazines? Canceled my subscriptions long ago to avoid the clutter. Posters on bulletin boards? Never saw them after college. Conversation at parties? Too few and far between. Not since grad school had I been in contact with anyone who might even try to explain to me how I could get personally involved. So without both the technology and the electronic appeals of the late 1990s and early 2000s, it might have been difficult indeed to find my way back to activism. But now I often wonder whether the blogosphere's fast-paced, salty commentary on the state of our world has lost its ability to satisfy me. It's as though I've passed through a phase where I compulsively worked my way through mounds of potato chips but now simply stare at the half-empty bag.

In 2003 and 2004, MoveOn.org, Meetup.com, TextPad.com, and DailyKos.com led me in a straight line to personal involvement. MoveOn invited me to the worldwide rally protesting the imminent Iraq War, then urged me to support the presidential candidate of my choosing (Howard Dean). Meetup told me where I could find meetings devoted to learning about and supporting his campaign, and then, after his campaign was torpedoed, where I could find, and eventually set up, meetings for Kerry. TextPad let me set up a little blog for friends and family to try to coax them into political activism. But it was Daily Kos that had the biggest effect on me.

In January 2004, I came across Daily Kos while doing a net search on behalf of my parents who had heard that Dean had made an anti-Israel remark. It turns out that the quote had been taken horribly out of context. But even after I found the answer to my question, I continued to read the site hungrily until late at night. Over the next few days, I began to use Daily Kos as a "link pad", a place where I could post information that people could read without a password (unlike my friends-and-family blog). Since I assumed that no strangers would read what I wrote, I decided I could post whatever scraps I wanted to keep for reference, either for myself or people I knew. My first post looked like this:

Favorite Links
Tue Jan 13, 2004 at 07:12:53 PM EDT
Favorite links:



Political blogs:





I posted a few more diaries that were really glorified sets of links, then discovered that people actually were reading and commenting on them. Some chastised me for not including my own commentary. Others looked at my cut-and-pasted implicit criticism of Wesley Clark and speculated that I was a Republican "troll". (One person commented "Ugh. It's about time Kos do a little Freeper-like cleaning of the rolls to expunge the Republicans from this board," to which another responded "Unfortunately... This guy's a Deaniac and, even more unfortunately, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.")

In those days, one could post roughly whatever one wanted. Shortly thereafter, standards would be introduced, many enforced either by software or by vigilante "diary police". Diaries had to be of a certain length and could not cite more than a few paragraphs of copyrighted material, and one could not post more than one diary a day. Eventually, the concept of "recommended" diaries was introduced: if enough users hit the "recommend" button for a diary, it would enter a special prominent list.

In any case, after my first spurt of short diaries, I began posting less and reading more. And I soaked up quite a bit during that time. Earlier in my life, I had distanced myself from politics partly due to distaste but also due to a reluctance to reveal my ignorance. Here, in this anonymous, constantly changing environment, it was possible for me to learn simply by watching. Only then did I try my hand at writing again.

The high point for me was when my piece The hat and the hamster, about the difference between the Bushes and the Kerrys as dramatized by their daughters' speeches at the Republican and Democratic Conventions, reached the top of the recommended list and received a number of enthusiastic comments. One responder asked whether he could send it to friends and family. But diaries that I published subsequently only attracted a small amount of interest.

The diaries I most enjoyed reading during those wary but hopeful days preceding the election included encouraging anecdotes of once-diehard but now defecting Republican family members. I also enjoyed reading optimistic predictions along the lines of George W. Bush is toast. Alas, when the election was called for Bush, and Kerry conceded, the warm feelings evaporated, replaced by a nasty battle between those who placed their hopes in investigations of election irregularities and those who felt that the best use of our effort was to move on. When I saw a comment from a site administrator comparing "fraudsters" to the Swift Boaters who had maligned Kerry, I felt betrayed, and stayed away from Daily Kos for months. Eventually, I came back to find that the conflict had faded. But its nastiness had soured my fondness for the site. I felt that the commenters who were primarily irritated with the "fraudsters" for interfering with their reading pleasure were extremely short-sighted in missing the most important threat to our electoral system: attacks on election integrity itself. It felt as though there were a lack of wisdom on both sides: those who were calling for investigation of the fraud were unsavvy in the repetitive, shrill, and ineffective way they appealed to the readership, but those who shouted down and eventually banned their diaries were making an unsavory decision to bolster the attractiveness of the site at the expense of its greater reach.

In later days, the site's founder showed a predilection for insulting groups (feminists, for instance) and chasing their supporters away. I explored other blogs, some of which made a conscious effort to be more harmonious, but none had the same level of activity that could be found at Daily Kos. A post might attract a handful of comments, not enough to get the adrenalin pumping. But as Daily Kos's readership soared, its popularity caused some unfortunate side effects. The size of the recommended diaries was held constant, so the competition for the recommended list grew more fierce. The snowball effect grew stronger, so diaries that acquired early momentum due to the reputation of their writers or the outrageousness of their headlines were able to shoulder out the rest, which scrolled ever more rapidly off the page.

A friend of mine wrote in her piece DailyKos Fiddles while America Burns that we tended to focus on salacious issues such as Cheney's hunting accident while ignoring more important issues such as the impending appointments to the Supreme Court. Prominent members rushed to assure the community that, in fact, Daily Kos is doing fine and its recommendation mechanism did the job, even if it led to a focus on repetitive diaries on some subjects while others went unnoticed. But the romance was irretrievably broken for me in January 2007, when I posted a five-part interview, "Go big or go home", with Paul Jay, head of Independent World Television. Two Daily Kos diaries on the network years earlier had attracted a great deal of attention, and later in 2007 I was to see another diary on IWT land on the recommended list. But my series attracted relatively little attention, despite the substantial work I invested in it and my intense efforts to "market" it by sending e-mail to people who had expressed interest in the subject before. The lack of response was probably due to overshadowing by a transitory controversy over whether a particular well-known blogger was correct in defending an accused troll, a discussion that received thousands of comments. (I've described this process in more detail in So how does Daily Kos measure up?)

I came to feel that Daily Kos was failing to serve me as an effective message board, or a reliable way to find the most important news, or a place to find wisdom or even necessarily a good read. But it's worth remembering that this may be due not only to changes on the site but to my own evolution. When I first started reading Daily Kos, I knew relatively little about politics. Hence, just about anything I read was new and worthwhile to me. I also was unprepared for the possibility that anyone would comment on my diaries (which I initially intended merely as placeholders for my own future reference), so when I received a few notes, I was surprised and gratified. When I began, there was no need for a recommended list; later, when such a list was introduced, and I once found myself on it, I was thrilled; only in the following years did it begin to feel that without landing on the recommended list (which felt ever more difficult), I would attract virtually no notice at all. Early on, the genres distinctive to the partisan blogosphere -- the snarky "modest proposal", the personal narrative, the photo collage, the call to arms -- were new and exciting to me; later, they lost their novelty.

I must also admit that I wanted not only to read about effective ways to get involved, but to be the one to bring these messages to others, to serve as Prometheus, carrying fire to the world. But every time my diaries failed to attract attention, I shared in Prometheus's torture: having my liver torn out as my diary scrolled into oblivion, only to have it grow back as I hoped that my next diary would meet a different fate.

I also began to believe that my blogging was preventing me from being an effective activist if there were other tasks competing for my time. A post would take me at least three hours to complete, and it often seemed as though the audience were too small to merit the effort (though the fact that I could cross-post it and post a link to it even years later helped to balance out the equation). Without posting frequently, I could not build the name recognition that would allow my pieces to gain the early cumulative attention that would save them from oblivion. And my full-time job would not allow me to carve away blogging sessions, in addition to the fact that I simply did not have something new to say every day. In early 2004, I felt free to simply post whatever I ran across; by 2007, it became clear to me that there was already more than enough content being recycled across the blogosphere, and most of it originated within the mainstream media that the blogs frequently reviled.

Over the course of 2007, I became more and more deeply involved with an organization attempting to bring progressive talk radio back to the Boston airwaves. I felt good about this, as I took to heart Hillary Rettig's advice in her book The Lifelong Activist (which I've frequently mentioned here): one can be much more effective when focusing on one or two areas of activism than when spreading oneself over a great number of activities. The work has been a great education to me, both inspiring and sobering. I had never worked my way deep enough into an organization to realize that there was a place where the grassroots had to reach out to resources where money and political power were concentrated. The real challenge, beyond getting those resources to listen to us with the appropriate urgency, was in figuring out how to deal with them in a way that did not compromise our ideals. I also discovered that transparency, laudable as it might be, had its limits. We could not make important decisions on the message board itself -- too many hostile outsiders could read it. And as the number of relevant things we could discuss on the board dwindled, the filler material grew. So did petty spats between readers. Constructive posts to the board (for instance, links to relevant Daily Kos diaries) went largely ignored.

On a more upbeat note, however, I must point out that today, after spending hours discussing my growing dissatisfaction with the blogosphere, I came across an e-mail from one of the leaders of the Columbus, Ohio progressive talk radio group. He was calling attention to a diary that he had written about their station and to his comment about my dKosopedia (Daily Kos Wikipedia-style) progressive radio timeline and list of progressive radio stations. All of a sudden, I found myself energized. I added a few comments to his diary, posted links to it on the dozen or so progressive talk message boards, and watched for a while as a few more people added their comments and recommendations. Once again, I felt hopeful. What if we could get a diary on Columbus's success, the most inspiring development in progressive talk radio in many months, rise to the top of the recommended list? That might well require the building of an external network (phone tree?) to break through the inertial forces (campaign fever, etc.) that keep the issues and names on the recommended list largely static and limited, but it's worth a try. It's true that Daily Kos is dedicated to those who are devoted campaign-watchers, but occasionally another subject gathers mass interest. And in fact, Daily Kos is where I found out about the movement to save progressive radio in the first place, so even the sparsely-visited diaries serve some purpose.

So hand me another plate of potato chips. My liver has grown back and I'm getting hungry again...

Sunday, September 9, 2007

The Real News (July 2007): TRN Junkies Get a Fix

link to my July interview

The Real News (January 2007): "Go big or go home"

[I originally posted this series at Daily Kos in January 2007. In order to make it more readable, I split it into five parts. To save space, this diary links to the final four parts of the series. See also the later interview that I posted in July.]

Now that we've broken a corrupt party's stranglehold on political power, it's time to put the corporate Goliaths of the media on notice. I was pleased to see a healthy debate two days after Election Day about restoration of the Fairness Doctrine. Whether you find yourself pro or con, it's great that the subject is being discussed. However, I want to tell you about an entirely different approach toward reclaiming truth on the airwaves.

IWT/TRN crew with Paul Jay seated in front

While we political activists have been fighting to regain our democracy, an intrepid TV network named Independent World Television, which accepts no corporate or government funds, has been quietly getting itself off the ground. Some of us heard about IWT in 2005. In late February of that year, coldfusion announced "New TV News Network Coming!" with the accurate observation that "This could be HUGE, but it will take time." Then, in June and July, a spate of diaries gathering much more attention (among these, diaries written by tribe34 and m16eib) encouraged us to take IWT's survey and donate to the network. The news attracted attention from a few other blogs such as BuzzFlash, from a student newspaper at Lakehead University in Ontario and from several mainstream newspapers in Canada, the UK, and the US.

Months later, on March 22, 2006, I caught an interview with Paul Jay, the chair of IWT, on the Stephanie Miller radio show. That night, I visited the IWT website and asked why they'd been quiet for so long. I received a personal e-mail from Paul, asking me to sign up for their mailing list and telling me to watch for the new business plan they'd be posting in the coming week. Once I saw it, I wrote back with a few questions and offered to do an interview, which I would post here at Daily Kos. Paul eventually responded to the questions but somehow neglected to mention the interview offer, though he said rather cryptically "Help on the blogs would be appreciated."

In late August came the announcement that IWT and its flagship news show, "The Real News," was "entering an exciting new phase" and conducting a "world-wide talent search" for hosts. Encouraged, and figuring that perhaps my original offer had gotten lost in the shuffle, I wrote another e-mail offering to interview Paul. I was excited to receive a positive reply from his assistant: "Paul would very much like to set this interview up." Not only was I thrilled to have my offer accepted, but I was glad that there was at least one other member of the crew to handle communication with The Public. We set up the interview for mid-September.

The call was very energizing. Paul is persuasive, as you will see, and assuaged many of my fears about IWT/TRN. He did want me to hold off posting the interview, though, until they had a better infrastructure for dealing with mass interest, inquiries, and subscriptions. They had been swamped by our enthusiasm in 2005, when they didn't have enough staff to handle the unexpected flood of communication, so they didn't want to go public prematurely. New infrastructure, including a redesigned web interface, is now in place. So without much more ado, I will present you with first few paragraphs of the interview. I'll be bringing the rest to you as a series.

In the meantime, please:

(a) visit the site

(b) contribute (it's tax-deductible!), preferably as a monthly sponsor (warning for dialup users: short video at this link, but if you hit the pause button quickly, it will stop)

(c) urge your friends to join you in steps (a) and (b). They may be sick of being asked to support candidates or sign petitions, but a chance to reach the masses via a new television network is something quite different.

(d) if you live in or can move to Toronto, where production will begin, consider contacting IWT/TRN to help out as a volunteer or apply for a position on the crew

(e) write to volunteer@therealnews.com if you can help out in other ways (such as hosting an IWT event)

And here we go!

AF: A lot of people would like to see you on the air yesterday, if not sooner. But your current timetable suggests that you won't be launching until late 2007. Could you give us an idea of how things are going and why the process might take so long?

PJ: We've been trying to balance two things: how you prepare the conditions so that you can come out with enough substance and big enough to make a difference, and how you sustain it. Even if we raise enough money to get started with the daily world news show and get it out for a month or two, the worst thing would be to start something big and then three months later go black. So from the very beginning, our internal slogan was "Go big or go home." We need to be a real source of world news, a place for front-line breaking news reporting and analysis and debate. And that's expensive. We want to compete with CNN, even if it's a ten or fifteen-year arc to get there. We're fundamentally about being able to speak to a mass audience. We're not trying to be another source that supplements the kind of information sources that already exist for very politicized people. If you're very political and you're at all web-savvy, there are actually a lot of places you can go to get information right now. In the final analysis, that's not our target audience. Of course we want those people to be with us, and we're very much going to depend on them for financial support, for spreading the word, for helping us get angles on stories, and even for citizen journalism. But we want to get to that thirty, forty, or fifty million who know there's something wrong, who know the television news they're getting is bad, who know the country is headed in a very dangerous direction -- not just the country, the world. In the U.S. there are at least forty or fifty million people out there who do not believe Saddam was connected to 9/11, who don't think that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. If you look at the polls, 40% or 50% of the country is quite clear on the issues. We want to be big enough to make an impact.

If you read our business plan, we talk about the rollout of sample content. We are going to start a weekly show by January. You're the first to hear it: it's called "The Real News Beta." We're going to let people in on where we are in our development, to give people a taste of what's coming. We're going to take the big story of the week, take clips of how other news shows have covered that story. If the show was the war in Lebanon, for example, we'd show how CNN covered it, ABC, Fox, but we'd also show how BBC, CBC [Canadian Broadcast Corporation], Al-Jazeera covered it. then go to a journalist in the field and ask the journalist how they think television is covering the story, and what is the real story. We will be starting a regular short newscast.

Much more to come. Stay tuned...

Update [2007-1-5 11:54:5 by AlanF]: Later installments in the series:

"Oh, you mean the REAL news!": Interview with Paul Jay, IWT/The Real News, Part 2

"We'll go where the facts take us": Interview with Paul Jay, IWT/The Real News, Part 3

"Seeking truth, not balance": Interview with Paul Jay, IWT/The Real News, Part 4

"We want all of you!": Interview with Paul Jay, IWT/The Real News, Part 5